Monday, May 25, 2009

Feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Sunday May 24, 2009

Acts 1:15-26; Psalm 66:1-8; Romans 8:31-39; Luke 5:1-11

Preached by The Rev. John Warner

Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people. When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:10b-11)

I imagine Peter with a smirk on his face when Jesus told him to let the nets down into the deep water. Jesus was not a fisherman; he was a carpenter. However, Peter, and the brothers James and John, were fishermen. They had fished all night and, even with their skill as fishermen, caught nothing. However, Peter had already witnessed the miraculous when Jesus healed his mother-in-law; therefore, he lowered the net. When those present struggled to lift the nets, they discover that the netting was full of fish. Peter, previously doubting the power of God working through Jesus, felt unworthy to be in Christ’s presence and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” After calming Peter, Jesus called Peter to join him in his divine mission—to become fishers of people.

Peter, an illiterate day laborer, was called by Jesus to become the foundation of the church. And Jesus has called others in our Christian tradition to erect the walls, install the altar and pews and to top it off with a roof. On this feast day, we are celebrating the life and ministry of one such individual—our patron saint, St. Augustine of Canterbury.

St. Augustine, who took the name of St. Augustine of Hippo, was a 6th century Benedictine monk who became the 1st Archbishop of Canterbury and the founder of the English Church. St. Augustine’s journey to England began shortly after Pope Gregory received a rumor that a great numbers of pagans in Britain led by King Æthelberht were ready to convert to Christianity if only preachers could be sent to instruct them in the faith. Pope Gregory chose Augustine for the task. Augustine wasn’t very charismatic but he was a good organizer and he understood his Christian mission. Augustine wasn’t the only missionary chosen for the journey. Pope Gregory designated Augustine as the spokesman of a company of forty monks comprising men knowledgeable in Roman law and liturgy, scribes, masons, architects and builders. Boarding grain ships, the missionaries traveled to Gaul (present day France) for letters of support from the royalty and clergy and then onto Kent in Britain.

The task that laid ahead for Augustine and the other missionaries was daunting. The other monks hearing that “the English cut the throats of those regarded as enemies, hung them upside-down so that the blood drained out and then drank it” asked Augustine to return to Rome and request that the missionaries return home. Augustine reluctantly did as requested but Gregory refused to rescind the mission sending him back with letters encouraging the monks to persevere. Contrary to the practice of previous papal authority, Gregory instructed Augustine that pagan temples not be destroyed but to consecrate them and build altars.

When Augustine and the others arrived in Kent, Æthelberht realizing that they came in peace allowed the missionaries to settle and preach in his capital of Canterbury and to begin their mission of conversion. Shortly after King Æthelberht was baptized and became a Christian, ten thousand converts sought baptism.

After Augustine’s consecration as the first Archbishop of the English, he began to lay the foundation for the Church of England. Additional missionaries were sent from Rome to support Augustine and to bring sacred vessels, vestments, relics and books. When Augustine died he had been Archbishop of Canterbury for seven years and he left a Christian legacy that has had a lasting impact on England. He introduced systems of written learning and systems of building, construction and architecture. He brought a faith and culture which included Latin liturgy and scriptures and the sacraments of redemption. His tomb in St. Augustine’s Abbey is inscribed with this epitaph:

Here lies the Lord Augustine, First Archbishop of Canterbury, who formerly sent hither by the blessed Gregory, Bishop of the city of Rome, and by God’s assistance, supported with miracles, reduced King Æthelberht and his Nation from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ and having ended the days of his office in peace, died on the 26th day of May in the reign of the same King.

So can the life of St. Augustine teach us anything that might be useful in our ministry efforts? I believe so and I would like to take a moment to talk about three teaching points.

First, Jesus does not require any prerequisite skills when calling you into a Christian mission; he only asks for your faithful service. Augustine was not a historical luminary; he was an ordinary man who just happened to be Pope Gregory’s emissary. Pope Gregory knew him as an effective monastery administrator and one who when asked to embark on this mission responded, “Send me.”

Second, any ministry requires a variety of gifts; therefore, a community needs to respond to the calling. The 6th century mission to Britain required a variety of skills—architecture, building, liturgical, diplomatic, etc., as well as administrative. The important contribution that we can make is to bring whatever gifts we do possess to bear on the problem—not necessarily as individuals but as a community.

Finally, a call to a ministry sanctioned by God does not mean that our efforts will be without risk or problem-free. Augustine and his company travelled approximately 1000 miles over ocean and land to reach his destination in Britain. The Great Plague had recently ended after killing 30-60% of the population and was still on the missionaries’ minds. Augustine also feared whether the monks would be greeted as friend or as foe by Æthelberht. However, Pope Gregory directed him to remain steadfast in his mission indicating that God would be present during their travels. Just as God is always present in our ministries.

When we are baptized, we are reborn into Christian service. The call to ministry is not a choice that we can decide to do or not to do. It is true that we have a responsibility to ourselves; however, we also have a responsibility to others. It is that responsibility to others that gives our lives meaning. It is what makes us “fishers of people.” Amen.


Bowden, John Encyclopedia of Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Green, Michael A. St. Augustine of Canterbury, Janus Publishing Company, 1997.

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